Education by Role-Playing

I’m recently back from the UK where I defended my dissertation and then took a vacation to drink Scotch and travel about the Highlands.  As I’m almost de-jetlagged and as the airline has finally coughed up my luggage, I’ll soon be returning to proper blogging.

In the meantime, I thought I’d just post a link to a really interesting site from Barnard College about a technique for teaching undergraduates about critical periods in the past, emphasizing the role of historical contingency and (more controversially, but, in my view soundly) about the agency of individuals.  Their technique is a game called “Reacting to the Past.” It involves roleplaying and does have some sort of determination of winners and losers.  (How this determination is made is not clear.  My impression is that entails voting by a panel of judges, but I may be wrong.)

As Israel and Palestine are on everyone’s minds these days, check out the video of the students playing a scenario of “Reacting” dealing with the founding of Israel.  “The game was based around the work of the Palestine Royal Commission (also known as the Peel Commission) which arrived in Jerusalem in 1936 to try and determine the causes of conflict and make recommendations for the future.”  It’s fascinating and really powerful, not least because most of the students were Jews or Muslims and they were purposely cast against type for the purposes of the game.  I applaud all of them for their intellectual integrity and for the research and effort that they clearly put into their preparations.

That scenario clearly has some connection with military history.  Another scenario in development which deals more directly with military history is entitled “The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148,” and it deals with the decision to launch the…Second Crusade.  Barnard has in the can already yet another scenario dealing with New York City during the Revolutionary War. Rather amusingly, the description of this scenario includes the amusing line, “Winning requires the ability to master the high political arguments for and against revolution as well as the low political skills of logrolling, bribery, and threatened force. [However] Military force often determines the winner, much to the surprise of the students who concentrated merely on internal game politics.”  Never forget Mao: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

I wonder if it might not be possible to apply the “Reacting to the Past” methodology to a course that is more specifically related to military and diplomatic history.  Possible scenarios.

  • The run-up to World War I.
  • The decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
  • The run-up to the U.S. Civil War.
  • The Prague Spring of 1968.
  • Perestroika, the USSR and the East Bloc.
  • Japan and the United States: The Road to War.

Of course, if one wanted to be particularly controversial, one could create a REALLY interesting scenario around the Arab mujahidin at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  Near enemy?  Far enemy?  Azzam or Bin Laden?  I shan’t hold my breath, but that would be really cool.

[Update:  Gah.  Always follow every link.  Grants have been given for two additional games that deal to some degree with military history:  “Kentucky in 1861: A Nation in the Balance” and “Petrograd, 1917.”]

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 1:50 AM  Comments (2)  
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Uproar over King Philip’s War

The History News Network has alerted me to the fact that one of America’s least known wars, King Philip’s War, a war that ran 1675-1676 in New England between colonists and several native American tribes, has made an appearance in today’s politics.   It seems that Multiman Publishing, which publishes wargames or “historical simulations,” is planning to bring out a game called “King Philip’s War” about…well, you know what it’s about.  The result has been outrage.  This incident is an interesting example of the discomfort that many people in academia and the left have when it comes to thinking about war.King Philip's War, the forthcoming boardgame.

Professor Julianne Jennings, a professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College and a member of a local tribe, heard of the game and started to organize protests.  The AP picked up the story citing native Americans as calling the game “totally inappropriate, highly offensive” and “just a way to have fun reliving a tragedy.”  CapeCodeOnline ran another story along similar lines, quoting, for instance, Ellie Page, the historian for the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe, as saying “It’s an awful idea for them to do….To make a game out of it is to diminish the sacrifice that these people had to go through at that time.”

Prof. Jennings concerns soon led to a street protest in downtown Providence against the game.  Signs at the protest suggested that racism and delight in genocide were underlying factors in the game.  (See here and here.)   The controversy also generated several postings on the blog of an interested person in California who was, to put it mildly, intemperate in accusing wargamers of being racist, uneducated, and (ironically!) so “simpleminded” as to engage in ad hominem attacks.  John Goff, President of the Salem Preservation Society, suggested that Multiman Publishing should not sell the game or else should “make significant compensatory contributions to promote better public understanding of Native American and non-native history.”

On the other side of the debate there were several remarkably thoughtful and generally polite threads on BoardGameGeek.  (See here, here, here, and here.)  While opposition was strong to the Jennings, et al, position, there was little flaming, though no shortage of snide comments.  The general thrust of these threads tended to be that the critics were failing to understand what wargaming was all about and failing to understand wargamers.  Wargaming, they say, is entertainment, yes, but is educational entertainment engaged in largely by adult history geeks.  Frequently wargames stimulate an interest in a war or a time period that leads to further study.  As one gamer put it: “As I said, I’ve never heard of this conflict. This game has aroused my interest in the conflict. Hence, I want to know more about both sides of the conflict. The people forget about this aspect of the game (or never thought about it).”

Professor Jennings apparently said a few things that seem to me a bit beyond the pale, notably this as quoted in CapeCodOnline: “”I don’t think (game designer John Poniske) took into consideration that the descendants of the people that he wishes to exterminate in his game are still here.”  That said, in general she and Poniske both remained polite and usually thoughtful throught all this.  In fact, they soon started corresponding and after the controversy had peaked they even appeared together on a local radio show.  In the end, they both agreed that the game could be a useful tool to educate people about a little known but tragic part of American history.

Based on what I heard on the radio show and elsewhere, Jenning’s concerns seemed to boil down to remarkably few things. The first was the use of the word “eliminate” to describe what the colonists did to the Native Americans (the concerned tribes all still exist).  The second was the lack of adequate background in the historical notes attached to the rules that would describe the genesis of the war.  And the third was the lack of a suggested list of “further readings” appended to the rules.  To a large degree she was pushing on an open door.  As I understand it, Poniske and Multiman have agreed to accommodate all these concerns.  The first is, of course, an easy editorial fix; the second simply entails redrafting what was probably only a few paragraphs to begin with; and the third, a list of suggested readings, is a common feature of wargame documentation.  Jennings also urged Poniske (whose fulltime job is as a middle school teacher) to get input on the game from the tribes themselves.  He has apparently complied at least in part, but he has also pointed out that the money doesn’t exist to do things like visit New England and meet with all the tribes and their historians individually as Jennings had initially suggested.  Multiman is a small company and the board wargame industry is not exactly lucrative.

Frankly, I’m appalled that such readily accommodated concerns could lead to such an outpouring of bile and accusations of racism.  I’m appalled but not surprised.  This is, it seems to me simply a variation on the common perception that military historians are bloodthirsty militarists.  I believe that that perception and the perception that wargamers are stupid, uneducated neo-Nazis are results of knowing too little about the subjects of the criticism.  Military history is an incredibly diverse branch of history which for at least the last 50 years (in the West, at least) cannot fairly be characterized as glorifying war.  War is unpleasant, it is true, and war poses major moral challenges, but similar points can be made about disease, poverty, prostitution, drug use, crime, and many branches of politics and nobody finds the study of those phenomena to be illegitimate.  Military historians don’t root for war.  By the same token, wargamers don’t root for war or genocide either.  That is, it seems to me, one of the major misunderstandings on the part of Jennings and some of her less restrained allies.  There’s no reason to think that people playing the colonists’ side in “King Philip’s War” are happy about the real-world fate of the Native Americans and titillated that they can pretend to engage in genocide themselves.  People don’t take on the values of the side they play in a wargame.  Take my case: I have played at various times, the Allies, the Germans and the Soviets in various games about World War II.  Does that make me a democratic-Nazi-Bolshevik?  Does it make me simultaneously happy and sad that the Holocaust happened?  Does it mean that I idolize, Roosevelt AND Hitler AND Stalin?  Ummmm…no.

Those who criticized this game also did not stop to consider the fact that wargames have been published about pretty much every war that anybody can think of, not to mention, innumerable hypothesized future or “what-if” conflicts.  They never explained why it was unacceptable to have a game about King Philip’s War, but not about Vietnam, or World War II,  or the Napoleonic Wars, or the Thirty Years War or the Russo-Japanese War, or the Punic Wars, or the Chechen Wars.  Genocide and extreme religious intolerance loomed large in several of those wars and that’s just an illustrative list.  (Does “sowing their fields with salt” ring a bell?)  Are the survivors of these wars and their descendants offended?  I don’t hear the outrage.  This should have made the critics stop and think that maybe they were being overly sensitive and that maybe wargames aren’t simply war pornography.

I applaud Prof. Jennings and John Poniske for coming to a modus vivendi.  I’d urge everyone else to take a deep breath and remember that while wars are bad, thinking about them isn’t.  This is a useful lesson in the gaming world and in the world of history.

Early American Wargaming

The other day while messing around on Google Books I ran across a couple of interesting items.  First I found Strategos (1879) written by Lieutenant Charles A. L. Totten.  It has one of those delightful 19th century subtitles: “A Series of American Games of War Based Upon Military Principles and Designed for the Assistance Both of Beginners and Advanced Students in Prosecuting the Whole study of Tactics, Grand Tactics, Strategy, Military History, and the Various Operations of War.”  That led me to Captain W. R. Livermore’s American Kriegsspiel (1882).  This had a rather less grandiose title: “A Game for Practicing the Art of War Upon a Topographical Map.”        

Strategos  is some 180 pages while The American Kriegsspiel is some 130 pages.  And I remember thinking that the rules to Squad Leader were complicated.  Silly me.         

Excerpt from the rules of Strategos. This was NOT a beer and pretzels game.

As a frustrated wargamer, these books struck me as interesting, so I did a little poking around       

Both of these games were similar in that they entailed moving blocks or pieces of slate around on tables and both were also designed to be serious tools for military professionals.  The War Department actually endorsed Strategos, but it appears to have been The American Kriegspiel that had more of a lasting impact in the U.S. military.  In fact, both games were in conscious imitation of the original Prussian Kriegsspiel that had been in use in that country for about fifty years at this point.  It was a well-known fact that the Prussians could do no wrong when it came to things military and they had three recent impressive victories to prove it.  Indeed, such was the influence of all things German at this time that Arthur L. Wagner, one of the great military intellectuals of U.S. military history, spoke of “Prusso-Mania.”  Moreover, the British had a version, Aldershot, based directly on the German Kriegsspiel.  Clearly the U.S. Army, which was just entering a period of reform and modernization, needed its own game.      

Totten’s book has a fine introduction which discussed the history of the wargame and which referred to two even earlier such American games.  One was entitled War Chess (1866) which weighed in at a mere 22 pages.   The other was Militaire, published in 1876 by J. B. Lippincott.  (I can’t find either one of these online, though they are both in the public domain.)  Totten notes that he wrote the initial version of Strategos without reference to any of the foreign games for the simple reason that he could not at the time find copies of their rules though later he modified his work after finding some of them.  By contrast, Livermore quite freely admits that The American Kriegsspiel is a modification of the Prussian game.  Interestingly, both games made the New York Times at various points.  See here for Totten’s appearance  and here for Livermore’s.  According to the Times, Totten even got some ten general officers to attend a lengthy talk he gave at the Military Service Institution.       

These games, or at least their ilk, have had long-term effects.  First, of course, anybody who has had even glancing exposure to the Pentagon will know that gaming, in a thousand varieties, is ubiquitous there.  Indeed, gaming is not merely military now, but also has come to include diplomacy and other endeavors.      

Avalon Hill's Kriegspiel

These games also reverberate in the civilian world.  Indeed, some people still play games much like the original Prussian Kriegsspiel.   One of the earliest Avalon Hill wargames was even called Kriegspiel  though it used hexes.  And we all remember that childhood game Stratego.  However, what I did not realize until recently was that these sorts of games led to the development of role-playing games (RPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons.  The gaming lore (see also here) is that the first RPG took place in 1967.  It was a version of a table-top wargame–whether involving blocks or miniatures is not clear to me– involving a Napoleonic-era assault on a small Prussian town.  The referee, one David Wesely, called this game/scenario Braunstein.  Wesely had the inspiration of assigning not just military roles (commanders) to the players, but also civilian roles.  (Purportedly Wesely was inspired by the game Diplomacy, Totten’s Strategos, Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense: A General Theory and J.D. Williams’ The Compleat Strategyst.)  Wesely, who didn’t quite realize the implications of what he had done, tried to keep these civilian players shackled with the same sorts of rigid rules that governed traditional wargames.  Over the next two or three sessions, however, it became clear that the civilian players were going to have none of it, that the lack of rules was precisely what made things interesting for them.   One of the civilian players in this game was a man named David Arneson.  Arneson later took over as a referee for a version of Braunstein set in Latin America.  With this experience under his belt, he developed a version of Braunstein set in a fantasy world.  This he called “Blackmoor” and it became a precursor to “Dungeons and Dragons” which Arneson co-developed with the rather more famous Gary Gygax.    

And the rest is history.

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 3:29 PM  Comments (3)  
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The Death of Hex-based Wargames

Hotel Tango to Paul Manning for finding this article about the death of the hex and die-cut-counter wargame.  In this telling, “TSR shot wargaming in the head.”  You may recall TSR as the company that sold Dungeons and Dragons.  This article seems to suggest that it was incompetence on the part of TSR.  Paul, who brought this to my attention, seems suspicious that it was a murder, a purposeful effort by one gaming sub-culture to eliminate a rival sub-culture.  Who knows?

A young Humble Author (right) playing the Germans in AFRIKA KORPS on the living room floor.

All I know is that I owe my career in national security issues to wargaming.  I bought my first wargame, Afrika Korps, at the Frederick and Nelson’s department store in my hometown.  Sigh.  Little did I know that even as I was buying that game, the entire industry was starting its slide into oblivion.

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 12:41 AM  Comments (3)